Nov. 22, 2013, 50 years since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Most everyone in my generation, I was 20 at the time, remembers that day. I came of age during Kennedy’s presidency. The election of 1960 was the first one I followed actively. I am a bit embarrassed to say that my friend Pat Forster and I led a Richard Nixon campaign for president among the American Field Service high school students returning from Europe in the summer of 1960. However, by the fall I was staunchly in the camp of the youthful challenger. I was taken by Kennedy’s dash and the joy that seemed to fill him. I was delighted that Kennedy won. Soon thereafter, I set out to the U.S. Naval Academy.
My most vivid memory from those years was a visit that President Kennedy made to the Naval Academy in July of 1963, just four months before his assassination. At the Naval Academy, we had only recently welcomed the incoming plebes (freshmen) for their summer of military indoctrination. All of the other midshipmen were off on their summer training out in the fleet. To train the plebes, there was a small group of second classmen (juniors) like myself with a handful of officers to observe us.
On a glorious sunny day in mid-July the president, on a whim, decided he and Jackie should see the Naval Academy. One of his staff called the academy in mid-morning to say that the president would be coming after lunch.
The few officers there that morning quickly called us second classmen (each of us responsible for 20 or so plebes) into one of the Bancroft Hall meeting rooms and, in a state of high concern, told us the president of the United States would, in a matter of hours, be making his first ever visit to the Naval Academy. His first visit ever, and here we were with plebes who had barely gotten their uniforms and were just beginning to learn the rudiments of marching.
The officers implored us to pull our squad of plebes together, ensure that they had their uniforms shipshape and sparkling, and also drill into each of them the importance of this visit of the commander-in-chief. Clearly, the superintendent, the admiral in charge of the academy, had underscored for his officers the critical importance of this visit and our officers did a first-class job of putting that challenge to us. Our military careers seemed to be riding on how well our plebes came together for the honor of the Naval Academy.
We second class took this message to heart. We assembled our plebes together and put the fear of God into them about the upcoming presidential visit. By the time the president and Mrs. Kennedy arrived with the superintendent, our plebes looked scrubbed and polished. They stood tall, their belt buckles gleamed and their black shoes glistened. They were the midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy.
President Kennedy took us all in as we stood at rigid attention on the large outside court just in front of Bancroft Hall. After surveying us for a moment, he stepped to the microphone and said, remembering his days as a naval officer, “Stand at ease.” Not one body moved – we were all frozen with a mixture of fear and concentration.
The president stepped back, clearly nonplussed by our inability to relax, even a little. But having that wonderful sense of humor that was so endearing, he said to the superintendent: “Well, Admiral, I guess they haven’t learned that command yet.” This released the tension. We relaxed, though still keeping pretty braced-up, and the president went on to dazzle us with leadership lessons from a fellow naval officer whose PT boat had been shot out from under him in the Pacific during World War II.
No one who was there that day will have forgotten that golden moment when a young president and his wonderfully attractive wife won the hearts of us midshipmen.
A short four months later, I was one of 70 midshipmen who marched in the funeral procession for President Kennedy. It was another memorable day with a very different feel – the slow rattling of the drums the only sound as we marched from the Capitol, past the White House, to Arlington National Cemetery. We midshipmen were well behind the caisson carrying the president’s body, but we didn’t have to see what was happening at the head of our column to feel the sadness that came rolling back.
I prefer to think of President Kennedy as I last saw him on that July day at the Naval Academy – a handsome, smiling leader sharing his wit and wisdom with a small but proud group of midshipmen.